Thoughts on eBooks

In recent months, I have been doing a clear out of paper books in case the recent European Union referendum result in the U.K. affects my ability to stay there since I am an Irish citizen. In my two decades here, I have not felt as much uncertainty and lack of belonging as I do now. It is as if life wants to become difficult for a while.

What made the clearance easier was that there was of making sure that the books were re-used and eBooks replaced anything that I would wanted to keep. However, what I had not realised is that demand for eBooks has flatlined, something that only became apparent in recent article in PC Pro article penned by Stuart Turton. He had all sorts of suggestions about how to liven up the medium but I have some of my own.

Niall Benvie also broached the subject from the point of view of photographic display in an article for Outdoor Photography because most are looking at photos on their smartphones and that often reduces the quality of what they see. Having a partiality to photo books, it remains the one class of books that I am more likely to have in paper form, even I have an Apple iPad Pro (the original 12.9 inch version) and am using it to write these very words. There also is the six year old 24 inch Iiyama screen that I use with my home PC.

The two apps with which I have had experience are Google Play Books and Amazon Kindle, both of which I have used on both iOS and Android while I use the Windows app for the latter too. Both apps are simple and work effectively until you end up with something of a collection. Then, shortcomings become apparent.

Search functionality is something that can be hidden away on menus and that is why I missed it for so long. For example, Amazon’s Kindle supports puts the search box in a prominent place on iOS but hides the same function in menus on its Android or Windows incarnations. Google Play Books consistently does the latter from what I have seen and it would do no harm to have a search box on the library screen since menus and touchscreen devices do not mix as well. The ability to search within a book is similarly afflicted so this also needs moving to a more prominent place and is really handy for guidebooks or other more technical textbooks.

The ability to organise a collection appears to be another missed opportunity. The closest that I have seen so far are the Cloud and Device screens on Amazon’s Kindle app but even this is not ideal. Having the ability to select some books as favourites would help as would hiding others from the library screen would be an improvement. Having the ability to re-sell unwanted eBooks would be another worthwhile addition because you do just that with paper books.

When I started on this piece, I reached the conclusion the eBooks too closely mimicked libraries of paper books. Now, I am not so sure. It appears to me that the format is failing to take full advantage of its digital form and that might have been what Turton was trying to evoke but the examples that he used did not appeal to me. Also, we could do with more organisation functionality in apps and the ability to resell could be another opportunity. Instead, we appear to be getting digital libraries and there are times when a personal collection is best.

All the while, paper books are being packaged in ever more attractive ways and there always will be some that look better in paper form than in digital formats and that still applies to those with glossy appealing photos. Paper books almost feel like gift items these days and you cannot fault the ability to browse them by flicking through the pages with your hands.

A belated goodbye to PC Plus magazine

Last year, Future Publishing made a loss so something had to be done to address that. Computer magazines such as Linux Format no longer could enclose their cover-mounted discs in elaborate cardboard wallets and moved to simpler sleeves instead. Another casualty has been one of their longest standing titles: PC Plus.

It has been around since 1986 and possibly was one of the publisher’s first titles. It was the late nineties when I first encountered and, for quite a few years afterwards, it was my primary computer magazine of choice every month. The mix of feature articles, reviews and tutorials covering a variety of aspects of personal computing was enough for me. After a while though, it became a bit stale and I stopped buying it regularly. Then, the collection that I had built up was dispatched to the recycling bin and I turned to other magazines.

In the late nineties, Future had a good number of computing titles on magazine shelves in newsagents and there did seem to be some overlap in content. For instance, we had PC Answers and PC Format alongside PC Plus at one point. Now, only PC Format is staying with us and its market seems to be high home computer users such as those interested in PC gaming. .Net, initially a web usage title and now one focussing on website design and development, started from the same era and Linux Format dates from around the turn of the century. Looking back, it looks there was a lot of duplication going on in a heady time of expanding computer usage.

That expansion may have killed off PC Plus in the end. For me, it certainly meant that it no longer was a one stop shop like Dennis’s PC Pro. For instance, the programming and web design content that used to come in PC Plus found itself appearing in .Net and in Linux Format. The appearance of the latter certainly meant that was somewhere else for Linux content; for the record, my first dalliance with SuSE Linux was from a PC Plus cover-mounted disk. The specialisation and division certainly made PC Plus a less essential read than I once thought it.

Of course, we now have an economic downturn and major changes in the world of publishing alongside it. Digital publishing certainly is growing and this isn’t just about websites anymore. That probably explains in part Future’s recent financial performance. Then, when a title like PC Plus is seen as less important, then it can cease to exist but I reckon that it’s the earlier expansion that really did for it. If Future had one computing title that contained extensive reviews and plenty of computing tutorials with sections of programming and open source software, who knows what may have happened. Maybe consolidating the other magazines into that single title would have been an alternative but my thinking is that it wouldn’t have been commercially realistic. Either way, the present might have be very different and PC Plus would be a magazine that I’d be reading every month. That isn’t the case of course and it’s sad to see it go from newstands even if the reality was that it left us quite a while ago in reality.

Why the delay?

The time to renew my .Net magazine came around and I decided to go for the digital option this time. The main attraction is that new issues come along without their cluttering up my house afterwards. After all, I do get to wondering how much space would be taken up by photos and music if those respective fields hadn’t gone down the digital route. Some may decry the non-printing of photos that reside on hard disks or equivalent electronic storage media but they certainly take up less physical space like that. Of course, ensuring that they are backed up in case of a calamity then becomes an important concern.

As well as the cost of a weekly magazine that I didn’t read as much as I should, it was concerns about space that drove me to go the electronic route with New Scientist a few years back. They were early days for digital magazine publishing and felt like it too. Eventually, I weened myself from NS and the move to digital helped. Maybe trying to view magazine articles on a 17″ screen wasn’t as good an experience as seeing them on the 24″ one that I possess these days.

That bigger screen has come in very handy for Zinio‘s Adobe AIR application for viewing issues of .Net and any other magazine that I happen to get from them. There’s quite a selection on there and it’s not limited to periodicals from Future Media either. Other titles include The Economist, Amateur Photographer, Countryfile, What Car and the aforementioned New Scientist also. That’s just a sample of eclectic selection that is on offer.

For some reason, Future seem to wait a few days for the paper versions of their magazines to arrive in shops before the digital ones become available. To me, this seems odd given that you’d expect the magazines to exist on computer systems before they come off the presses. Not only that but subscribers to the print editions get them before they reach the shops at all anyway. This is the sort of behaviour that makes you wonder if someone somewhere is attempting to preserve print media.

In contrast, Scientific American get this right by making PDF’s of their magazines available earlier than print editions. Given that it takes time for an American magazine to reach the U.K. and Eire, this is a very good thing. There was a time when I was a subscriber to this magazine and I found it infuriating to see the latest issues on newsagent shelves and I still waiting for mine to arrive in the post. It was enough to make me vow not to become a subscriber to anything that left me in this situation every month.

Some won’t pass on any savings with their digital editions. Haymarket Publishing come to mind here for What Car but they aren’t alone. Cicerone, Cumbrian publishers of excellent guidebooks for those seeking to enjoy the outdoors, do exactly the same with their wares so you really want to save on space and gain extra convenience when going digital with either of these. In this respect, the publishers of Amateur Photographer have got it right with a great deal for a year’s digital subscription. New Scientist did the same in those early days when I dabbled in digital magazines.

Of course, there are some who dislike reading things on a screen and digital publishing will need to lure those too if it is to succeed. Nevertheless, we now have tablet computers and eBook readers such as Amazon’s Kindle are taking hold too. Reading things on these should feel more natural than on a vertical desktop monitor or even a laptop screen.

Nevertheless, there are some magazines that even I would like to enjoy in print as opposed to on a screen. These also are the ones that I like to retain for future consultation too. Examples include Outdoor Photography and TGO and it is the content that drives  my thinking here. The photographic reproduction in the former probably is best reserved for print while the latter is more interesting. TGO does do its own digital edition but the recounting of enjoyment of the outdoors surpassed presentation until a few months ago. It is the quality of the writing that makes me want to have them on a shelf as opposed to being stored on a computer disk.

The above thought makes me wonder why I’d go for digital magazines in preference to their print counterparts. Thinking about it now, I am so sure that there is a clear cut answer. Saving money and not having clutter does a have a lot to to with it but there is a sense that keeping copies .Net is less essential to me though I do enjoy seeing what is happening in the world of web design and am open to any new ideas too. Maybe the digital magazine scene is still an experiment for me.

Ditching PC Plus?

When I start to lose interest in the features in a magazine that I regularly buy, then it’s a matter of time before I stop buying the magazine altogether. Such a predicament is facing PC Plus, a magazine that I been buying every month over the last ten years. The fate has already befallen titles like Web Designer, Amateur Photographer and Trail, all of which I now buy sporadically. Returning to PC Plus, I get the impression that it feels more of a lightweight these days. What Future Publishing has been doing over the last decade is add titles to its portfolio that take actually from its long established stalwart; Linux Format and .Net are two that come to mind and there are titles covering Windows Vista and computer music as well. Being a sucker for punishment, I did pick up this month’s PC Plus and the issue is as good an example of the malaise as any. Reviews, once a mainstay of the title, are now less prominent than they were. In place of comparison tests, we now find discussions of topics like hardware acceleration with some reviews mixed in. Topics such as robotics and artificial intelligence do rear their heads in feature articles and I cannot say that I have a great deal of time for such futurology. The tutorials section is still there but has been hived off into a separate mini-magazine and I am not so sure that it has escaped the lightweight revolution. All this is leading me to dump PC Plus in favour of PC Pro from Dennis Publishing. This feels reassuringly more heavyweight and, while the basic format has remained unchanged over the years, it still managed to remain fresh. Reviews, of both software and hardware, are very much in evidence and it manages to have those value-adding feature articles; this month, digital photography and rip-off Britain come under the spotlight. Add the Real Word Computing section and it all makes a good read in these times of behemoths like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe delivering new things on the technology front. I don’t know if I have changed but PC Pro does seem better than PC Plus these days.